Downtown Women, Jersey Girls: Female Duos Twisted Tutu and Shell Meet and Talk It Over

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Four Twisted Sisters I recently received two CDs in the mail by two female duos: one from the seasoned downtown NYC-based Twisted Tutu and another from the rural New Jersey teenagers known as Shell. The collective ages of Twisted Tutu add up to 91; Shell, 34. Yet there is an uncanny sharing of sensibilities spanning the generations. Both discs are stunningly fresh, fusing insane musical experimentation with a strong pop sensibility. Both are restlessly inclusive landscapes, embracing eclecticism and defying categorization. They're complex albums, each perhaps more satisfying when taken as a whole rather than in small track-by-track doses. Due to the dense complexities, they inspire a sort of amnesia, yet I've found that certain tunes stay lodged in my head like wobbly pop songs that I can't shake. Each individual musician is distinctively talented, yet it's the duo structure that seems to bring out the best in both. Fans of Marianne Nowottny's interiorized solo work will be happy to see her drawn out by Donna Bailey's extroverted musical madness on Shell Is Swell; and Twisted Tutu's Eve Beglarian's bad-girl sensibility is tempered by Kathleen Supové's straighter-edge (though not much) approach.

    Good CDs are rare enough, but two CDs made by two women duos made me wonder if something was up here. I did a quick scan of the musical landscape and could come up with irrelevant acts like the Judds, the Indigo Girls and the McGarrigles; only Heart had any sort of slight resonance. But the connections came fast when I thought about male duets: Suicide, Ween and Pan Sonic all seem to tap into the sort of energy, intensity and intelligence I encountered here.

    I wondered what it would be like to sit down with these four women and see what they had to say to one another about their practices, their gender, their age differences, their peers and their expectations for their new CDs. We met last week in the offices of New York Press over a bag of double-chocolate Milanos and a couple of bottles of Evian.

    Donna Bailey: If you think of the flow of contemporary music as a waterfall, Shell is rocks at the bottom, just waiting for everybody to crash on us.

    I would think that most teenagers your age would want to be insanely popular.

    Marianne Nowottny: No way. Not if you knew the teenagers from where we're from?

    I get this feeling that everybody today wants to be Madonna. Somehow I don't get that impression from Shell and Twisted Tutu.

    Eve Beglarian: She's much more interesting when you think of her career trajectory as one big piece of performance art. Certainly it's much more interesting than her music.

    DB: When I think of Madonna I think of the Desperately Seeking Susan look?the ribbons and bras. That's how we're gonna make it big. Just have closeup bellybutton shots of me and Marianne, fuzz and all.

    Kathleen Supové: But you kids were just babies when that movie came out.

    DB: Yeah, but I love the 80s music?especially the groups with big frosted hair. I've loved the Go-Go's ever since I saw a Behind the Music on them.

    KS: I think Heart is interesting.

    EB: Most women's music has come out of the folk singer-songwriter tradition of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, where it's normal to be alone and spill your guts out through your music. I would say that all of us in this room are clearly not in that tradition. Our music is more sure of itself and doesn't have to rely on that sort of purge. Even though Tori Amos is sure of herself, she's pissed in a particular kind of way that's not interesting to me.

    KS: Yeah, she was abused and you know it. (To Shell) Do you feel that way about your music?

    MN: I know exactly what I'm doing and feel confident about it. I don't really know what it sounds like to anybody else.

    That's an amazing thing to hear a 17-year-old saying. Most people I know in their late 30s are still trying to find that sentiment within themselves. (To Shell) How do you guys feel about community? MN: In terms of community, there's nobody around to have a broader community with. We're on our own. It's like running into a cave and doing whatever we want inside it. But if the world would conform itself more to the way I see things?I just wish that kids would dress a little bit nicer, be a little bit nicer and more creative. I'm so sick of, like, t-shirts.

    DB: Yeah, it's like every kid running around Millville has a Fubu hat and matching Fubu t-shirt, jeans, shoes. It's insane. I know a kid who's got Nike shoes, a Nike watch?

    MN: ?if there were Nike cars they would buy them.

    EB: Where Twisted Tutu comes from?the experimental tradition?it's always been a bunch of guys that formed a community. Cowell and Varese, Feldman and Cage. They created a context for their work to exist in. We're doing something completely different, although we retain the old distinction of myself as the composer and Kathy as the performer. There is a downtown community that very much supports what we do. (To Shell) Earlier you started to say something about other 17-year-olds. I'm curious?what are most 17-year-olds like outside of New York?

    DB: The kids around the Tri-State area are into Britney Spears. I work at a bakery and I can't tell you how many times last week I had to draw Britney Spears' face on birthday cakes. They want to eat Britney Spears! All the girls in my high school are into Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. They don't understand that those songs are made specifically to relate to young girls. That's why they're written. It's so obvious that the market is taking advantage of young girls. It's like they find some dude on the street who's totally talentless and drag him into a band, like the whole Ricky Martin-Menudo thing. If they play Christina Aguilera enough times, everybody in my high school is afraid to say they don't like her.

    EB: Lately I've been hanging out with a 14-year-old. We were driving recently and she puts on this pop kid's music show called Fox Family Countdown. It's just amazing that the whole marketing is set up in this monolithic way. I'm sitting in the front seat bitching about it and the kid just can't see that anything's wrong with it. She doesn't recognize the degree to which she's being marketed. I think it's every parent's responsibility to tell their kid that they're being brainwashed. The first records I had were Copland and Stravinsky. My mother thought that mainstream culture was dangerous and would corrupt me.

    Yet you bring so much pop into what you're doing.

    EB: Yes, but you've gotta use it for what you want to do rather that what it's been programmed to do to you. If you listen to Christina Aguilera enough, you begin to believe in that moral universe. That's sort of different from appropriating elements of pop culture which I take and make my own.

    KS: That's what's fascinating to me about Shell. You guys are in a totally different place.

    DB: We are. I'd like to know how many notes have been written by junior high kids in the last week that use the language swiped from these songs like "Hey, what's up? Nuttin' here. I don't wanna be your fool?" In South Jersey, if it doesn't exist on Dawson's Creek or MTV, it doesn't exist. I cannot imagine a worse place to live.

    MN: I'd like to propose a place that's worse: Sparta, NJ. The kids think that there's a ghetto there but really they're living in very expensive houses and drive nice cars. The girls are "ho's" and the boys hang out on the street corner pretending to sell drugs. But there are no drugs there. They tried to start a gang recently at the bowling alley, but a real gang came by and kicked their ass. It was really cool.

    What do they think of you?

    MN: They don't mind me at all because they know I'm just passing through. But they did get really offended in English class when I spoke my mind and told them what I really thought of them.

    KS: Do they know about your music? And if not, who's the audience for Shell's music?

    MN: There is no audience in my school for what we do. Unless it's delivered on MTV, it doesn't count.

    DB: I've known this kid since freshman year and we got to be friends. When the Shell CD came out I said, Yo Steve, you wanna buy a CD? He said sure but didn't end up paying me for it. I had to put him on a payment plan. He came back to me and told me that 15 bucks was too much to pay for it because he gets his Korn CDs at Best Buy for $13.99. So I said fine, but I'm gonna tax you on it! A couple of weeks later he told me that he really didn't like the CD and that he was too broke to pay me for it. A week later he told me that he hated the CD and asked whether he could just give it back to me. I said that's fair?the CD's not for everybody and if he's kind of broke, well, that's cool, I'll take it back. But later I ran into his girlfriend and she told me that he bought them a pair of tickets for the NSYNC concert for $53 a piece! Asshole!

    Both Twisted Tutu and Shell position themselves as outsiders, though in very different ways and outside very different communities.

    EB: For me it's not so much consciously placing myself outside classical music traditions as much as it's inventing the world as I need it to be. I would like to see the world come toward my vision rather than compromising what I do to go toward it.

    Twisted Tutu's outsiderness is in relation to classical music traditions. You guys are totally rock 'n' roll and that must piss some people off. Onstage, you wear transparent plastic shirts and black bras. That sort of transgression reminds me of Arthur Russell, a downtown cellist who played pieces by Philip Glass, Christian Wolff, people like that. He blew everybody's mind one night when he showed up at the Kitchen in the late 70s and did a disco show. People booed and walked out. It was brilliant. One of the goals of the avant-garde was to clear the hall.

    EB: When we went on tour a couple of years ago, we started to find our real audience and they were mostly college kids. While we come from the classical music world, what we do is intended more for a general audience. But even for a general audience, we're a bit too outside.

    What did Shell think of the Twisted Tutu disc?

    MN: (Awkward silence) I didn't really get it. We don't really hear too much interesting music out where we're from. It's got a lot going on in it.

    Is that sort of complexity interesting to you?

    MN: Yeah, I have a lot of fun with the radio that way, listening to songs for 30 seconds and then flipping the dial. (To Twisted Tutu) What were those weird voices that you used on your CD?

    EB: It's using lyrics from Kurt Schwitters.

    (To Shell) Do you know who Kurt Schwitters is?


    EB: There's a big Asian influence in what we do. I've spent a big amount of time in Asia recently working with musicians over there.

    (To Shell) Have you ever been to Asia?

    DB: I'm going to go to Epcot Center, maybe.

    MN: I watch Bollywood movies.

    Like those movies, there's a visual element to what you both do in performance.

    MN: People are really skeptical when they see how we look onstage.

    EB: Well I was really skeptical when I saw the list of shit that you sell at your concerts?refrigerator magnets, clothes, books. That's something that I would never do in a million years! Is that an ironic performance thing? Are you responding to the nonsense of celebrity? What's up with that?

    MN: I think it's kind of making fun of celebrity. I mean, give me a break?our perfume brand, Eau de Shell, is an old perfume bottle with a cigarette butt floating in stale beer!

    DB: Yeah, it's not exactly the Michael Jordan cologne! We also sell bottles of the breath of Marianne. The cap came off mine and my cat breathed into it?you've gotta refill it for me!

    KS: It's interesting. You're walking a fine line. Before I met you, I would never have known if you were on the level or not. Sorry if I sound jaded, but we have friends on the downtown scene that are really trying to get the big record-label contracts.

    EB: (To Shell) Do you want a big record-label contract?

    DB: As much as I would like more people to get into what we're doing, it would horrify me to be on TRL with Carson Daly. Jesus, I can just see them trying to market our music to 13- or 14-year-olds! I wouldn't want people to like us just because Fred Durst said we're hot! I would be really terrified of getting signed with a major record label and having to meet the big fat bald guy sitting in a chair saying you have to do this, you have to do that. It's really scary.

    EB: What about the Ani DiFranco model?

    MN: Her independence is cool but I don't like her music.

    As genre-busting as Twisted Tutu's disc is, it's still bound to be trapped in the new-music ghetto. What are your hopes for this record?

    EB: I had hopes that it might make it onto the college radio circuit, but because it's on a new-music label, it's not going to happen. The question of positioning is truly nightmarish with our eclectic practice. Even Tower Records has no idea where to put our CD in their store.

    DB: Well, I could see your CD hitting big in Millville, NJ. When I heard the first cut, "BoyToy/ToyBoy," with its pumping house beat, I could see half the kids in my town popping E tabs and just grooving out to it. (laughter)

    What are your summer plans?

    EB: I'm writing an orchestral piece.

    KS: I'm performing in festivals in Rome.

    DB: I'm working full-time in the bakery.

    MN: I'm trying to get car insurance.